Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Our (Bare) Shelves, Our Selves

As is the case with many people moving through their 70's, I am having to downsize my surroundings. An 1861 stone schoolhouse converted to a residence that has been my Madison WI home for the past 26 years is going on the market next week as my husband and I contract into a smaller condo near the university for the 4-5 summer months we spend away from Fort Lauderdale. Old record, tape, CD, and book collections that have been a part of my extended ego are being discarded or massively downsized. It feels like a series of amputations, even though for years all my reading and music listening have not required any of these objects. Rather, they are being downloaded (Amazon Kindle, iPad) or streamed from the internet (Apple Music,Pandora, Google Play, etc.). My valued music CDs have been transferred to iTunes. The visual richness and emotions evoked by the history of my filled book shelves is hardly matched by the two devices that can now perform their functions, an iPad and a wireless speaker. This feeling of loss is why a recent Op-Ed piece by Teddy Wayne having the title of this post resonated with me. The transition I am describing is occurring in the homes of children growing up with parents who have moved from books and CDs to Kindle and streaming. In such settings there can be fewer random walks through a book, record, or CD collection that find novel material, you're looking more for what you think you want. The final paragraphs of Wayne's essay:
Poking through physical artifacts, as I did with those Beatles records, is archival and curatorial; it forces you to examine each object slowly, perhaps sample it and come across a serendipitous discovery.
Scrolling through file names on a device, on the other hand, is what we do all day long, often mindlessly, in our quest to find whatever it is we’re already looking for as rapidly as possible. To see “The Beatles” in a list of hundreds of artists in an iTunes database is not nearly as arresting as holding the album cover for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Consider the difference between listening to music digitally versus on a record player or CD. On the former, you’re more likely to download or stream only the singles you want to hear from an album. The latter requires enough of an investment — of acquiring it, but also of energy in playing it — that you stand a better chance of committing and listening to the entire album.
If I’d merely clicked on the first MP3 track of “Sgt. Pepper’s” rather than removed the record from its sleeve, placed it in the phonograph and carefully set the needle over it, I may have become distracted and clicked elsewhere long before the B-side “Lovely Rita” played.
And what of sentiment? Jeff Bezos himself would have a hard time defending the nostalgic capacity of a Kindle .azw file over that of a tattered paperback. Data files can’t replicate the lived-in feel of a piece of beloved art. To a child, a parent’s dog-eared book is a sign of a mind at work and of the personal significance of that volume.
A crisp JPEG of the cover design on a virtual shelf, however, looks the same whether it’s been reread 10 times or not at all. If, that is, it’s ever even seen.


  1. This is a very touching post: as I too move into my 70's, and contemplate another move, I look at my bookshelves and consider adding a note inside each book's cover, saying where it is where it is.

    1. Correction: Why it is, where it is.